What Does a Healthcare Interpreter Do?

Susan Abe

A healthcare interpreter verbally translates medical interviews, information regarding medical procedures and discharge instructions to limited language or non-English speaking patients and their families. Most of this work takes place in acute care hospitals, and a healthcare interpreter is more likely to be found in a metropolitan medical center than in a small town hospital. Interpreters usually do not work full-time, and many are not part of the hospital staff. Rather, they usually work or volunteer on an on-call, as-needed basis, depending upon the language or languages they speak. How easy it is for a hospital to locate a healthcare interpreter depends upon how the facility structures the service, the need for the service, and the community's foreign-language speaking population.

Many healtcare interpreters can translate to sign language for the deaf or hard of hearing.
Many healtcare interpreters can translate to sign language for the deaf or hard of hearing.

Most healthcare interpreters in the US translate for the deaf in American Sign Language (ASL) or for Spanish-speaking patients and families. Other languages that often require a translator's services include Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian. World political events directly influence this field. When conflict and upheaval arise, foreign-born citizens may escape to more peaceful Western countries. As these new immigrants settle into communities, medical emergencies or accidents inevitably occur, requiring the services of a healthcare interpreter. In these situations, the only available interpreter is often a member of the immigrant's sponsoring agency until the hospital is able to locate an experienced healthcare interpreter.

Interpreters often serve as intermediaries between patients and their doctors.
Interpreters often serve as intermediaries between patients and their doctors.

In his role as an intermediary between a patient and a doctor, nurse or discharge planner, a healthcare interpreter holds a great deal of responsibility. Not only must he translate questions and answers back and forth, he must also be aware of cultural mores that might influence a patient or the family's full disclosure of information. Legal issues are also at stake. In order to meet the legal requirements of informed consent, a patient or family member must fully understand the purpose and risks of any medical procedure before signing the consent form. In this situation, a healthcare interpreter must alternate between translating a written document and interpreting the verbal communication between the healthcare provider and the patient.

Requirements to work as a healthcare interpreter are in flux. Obviously, an interpreter needs to be fluent in at least two languages. Ideally, he should also have some type of healthcare experience or familiarity with medical terminology. A professional group, The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters, was recently formed in the US and offers certification by examination for interested interpreters with at least one year of documented experience in the field and graduation from a 40-hour approved in-person or online program. Both the educational program and the testing are very expensive, particularly for a new field with few full-time careers available.

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